Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of disability. The costs associated with COPD are enormous — more than $37 billion a year, including $20 billion a year just in direct healthcare costs. Some 12 million American adults have been diagnosed with COPD, and another 12 million may have it but don’t know it.
How can there be so many undiagnosed cases of a life-threatening illness? For the same reason that many diabetics and people with high blood pressure go undiagnosed: The symptoms, especially early on, are so vague that they’re easy to ignore. And when COPD symptoms do appear, they can be mistaken for other conditions, like asthma.
In fact, until fairly recently, most people outside the health profession had never heard of COPD, and those who had heard of it very often dismissed it as a “smoker’s disease.” Smoking is the number-one risk factor for COPD, but it is by no means the only one. Long-term exposure to dust, chemical fumes, secondhand smoke, and other pollutants can lead to COPD, and there’s even a genetic condition that, though rare, can cause the disease.COPD also was long considered a man’s disease. But since 2003, more women than men have died every year from COPD. Many experts attribute this shift to the fact that, while smoking rates among men have dropped over the past two or three decades, the smoking rates for women have crept upward.
Women also seem to suffer more than men from many of the health-sapping effects of COPD, so it tends to progress faster in women than it does in men. That’s the insidious thing about COPD: It’s a progressive disease. New treatments and better understanding have improved management of its symptoms, but there is no cure, and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is about five years, depending on the severity of the COPD and other health factors.
Faced with these sobering facts, many people feel overwhelmed, even discouraged or depressed, when they first learn they have COPD. But you aren’t completely powerless. There are all kinds of steps you can take to manage your COPD symptoms and improve your quality of life. The first step is understanding COPD and how it affects your body.